Picking a start date for the Pacific Crest Trail is not a simple matter.
In contrast to my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, where I arbitrarily picked a start date of six weeks after I decided to hike the trail, picking a start date for the Pacific Crest Trail actually required a fair bit of deliberation.
Because the majority of the Appalachian Trail is at relatively mild elevations (below 4,000 ft) and only rarely climbs above 5,000 ft, there is not usually a significant amount of snow on the trail during the typical thru-hike season. Thus northbound AT hikers can generally start whenever as they want. However early depends on one’s tolerance for cold. The main constraint is on finishing before mid-October, before the weather in Maine turns bad.
However, a northbound Pacific Crest Trail hike has considerably more complicated timing requirements. As with the AT, the northern section of the PCT runs the risk of bad winter weather going into October. But that is where the similarities end.
Most of the southern 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is in the desert, which can get very hot, and very dry, later in the season, favoring an earlier start date. However, this is complicated by the second major section of the trail, the High Sierra.
The trail’s high point in the High Sierra is 13,200 ft at Forester Pass (a bit shy of the high point of the contiguous United States, 14,498 ft at Mt. Whitney, which I’ll be visiting along the way), more than double the Appalachian Trail’s high point of 6,667 ft at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies. This high elevation can harbor deep snow well into June or July.
Accordingly, a general rule of thumb is to depart Kennedy Meadows (generally considered to be the end of the desert section and the beginning of the High Sierra) around June 15. By that time, much of the snow has usually melted. At roughly 700 miles from the southern terminus, this should take a between a month and a half to two months to hike.
Given that constraint, many hikers opt to start hiking on or around April 15.
However, there is another significant complication to selecting a start date: permits.
Several sections along the PCT require permits. To make things simpler, the Pacific Crest Trail Association provides long-distance hikers with a single inter-agency permit valid for the entire trail. As the PCT has become quite popular in recent years, the PCTA imposes a 50 per day limit on permits originating from the Mexican border, in order to reduce overcrowding. In prior years, those permits became available in January, resulting in a free-for-all as hikers attempted to get a permit for their preferred start date.
For the 2018 season, however, a subset of the permits (35/day) became available on November 1, 2017, with the remaining 15/day becoming available in January. Because of the earlier date, before the winter snowfall even starts, the snow level in California can’t be used to select a start date.
In October, I came across this article by a 2017 thru-hiker, who started in late March. 2017 was notorious for being an exceptionally high-snow year; basically the worst case for thru-hikers. He made a fairly compelling argument for starting in March. In particular, getting to the High Sierra before the big snow melt in June is beneficial because the mountain streams should not yet be overflowing.
Selecting a Start Date
Although by the time I finished the AT, I was quite happy to be done, while I was on the trail, I wished I had more time. “Big mile” days were my least favorite. On days planned for 15 miles or more, everything turned into a blur, and taking side trails to views became complications, rather than something to enjoy. One of my least favorite thoughts on the trail was “that 0.2 mile side trail to a view is too long, I don’t have time for that”.
With that in mind, a March start date became clear. Sure, it might be colder to start, and there might be snow on some of the mountains on the way to the Sierra Nevada, but with a looser time constraint, I won’t need to rush. As I make my way through the desert, the snow situation in the mountains will become more clear, and I can adjust my pace as necessary. The early start also provides me with the time opportunity for side trails — there’s a few mountain peaks I intend to visit on the way that will likely add a few days worth of hiking, and not being in a particular rush to get to Kennedy Meadows will make it that much easier to take in the sights.
So, when is my start date?
Due to the many hikers attempting to submit permit applications at the same time, the permit application process was somewhat more difficult than it needed to be. (I’ll write about this later.) But, I’m happy to report that I did get my PCT permit application successfully submitted, and on November 15th, my application was approved by the PCTA.
I will begin my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike on March 21, 2018, two years to the day after I set foot on Springer Mountain to begin the Appalachian Trail.
In less than four months, I’ll be back on the trail! Springtime can’t come soon enough.